In 1995, Namco — now Bandai Namco — filed patent on “Recording medium, method of loading games program code means, and games machine”. It sounds boring, but had exciting applications: it let Namco run games-within-games while the main title loaded data.
As a result, Namco famously had a fully playable version of arcade shooter Galaxian running inbetween Ridge Racer tracks. While lengthy load times were particularly a problem in the CD-based era of the original PlayStation, more powerful hardware has been matched by increasingly demanding games, meaning players still sometimes face seemingly-interminable waits on some titles.
Because Namco had secured the patent on the idea of interstitial minigames, no one else could do the same. The best you could hope for was a particularly entertaining loading screen, or that a hint may prove relevant. However, patents expire after 20 years, which for this one was on 27 November. That means minigames while-you-wait are now an option for any developer that wants to incorporate them.
There were exceptions to Namco’s rule over the years, though. The patent specifically covered “auxillary game program code” — as in, unrelated to the main game. Bethesda couldn’t have, say, Wayne Gretzky Hockey running while you waited for Skyrim to load an area, but Nintendo’s Splatoon legitimately incorporated a series of original 8-bit style games, playable on the Wii U’s GamePad between matches, because they were directly and thematically related to the main game.
As a result of the patent’s expiration, an indie game jam has been set up, celebrating the opening of (hypothetically) creative floodgates. Loading Screen Jam is centred on “creating interactive loading screens (or anything that infringes on the abstract) and defiling the patent that held back game design for so many years! Create games/interactive material based on infringing the now-defunct patent in any way possible!” Submissions are open until 7 December.
WIRED has contacted Bandai Namco for comment, and will update this story accordingly.